After the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority announced Thursday plans to drain each of its Guadalupe Valley Lakes, people from Meadow Lake to Lake McQueeney and beyond shared a common feeling — they aren’t happy.
“I feel like that the GBRA should have known how to fix this,” Meadow Lake Resort resident Sarah Woosley said. “I mean, I worked in hospitals for years. Just because we didn’t have money to do something correctly didn’t mean we didn’t have to do it. So, I don’t understand why they didn’t look for a solution. I’ve already heard some people are going to move and I’m sure that the property owners are going to lose value in their property.”
GBRA announced in a statement released Thursday morning that the authority would begin “a systematic drawdown” in mid-September of the six lakes created by its six hydro-electric dams. The dams create hazards to people in and around the water, so the drawdown is necessary to minimize risks, GBRA said in the statement.
“Safety is our top priority. We understand this is an unpopular decision, but one that we feel is unavoidable given the dangers associated with these dams,” GBRA General Manager and CEO Kevin Patteson said. “GBRA is committed to working closely with the lake associations and the community to mitigate the impact of this difficult, but necessary decision.”
The authority and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department devised a plan to dewater the lakes with minimal impacts to the environment, the release read. Dewatering will start at the southernmost lake and GBRA will make its way north or upstream until the drawdown is complete.
GBRA employees will slowly open gates at each dam to slowly release the water, Patty Gonzalez, GBRA communications manager, said.
Lake Gonzales will be drained first beginning Sept. 16. Then Meadow Lake will be dewatered, followed by Lake Placid and culminating near the end of September with the emptying of Lake McQueeney if no delays arise, GBRA said.
The organization plans to send notices Friday alerting directly-affected property owners of its plans, the statement read. The authority can’t know when the lakes might be refilled until funding is secured, Gonzales said.
Two of the lakes already sit without water.
Lake Wood, one of the man-made lakes in the system, drained in 2016 after its spill gates failed, sending water coursing from the lake. A similar incident occurred in May when a spill gate failed at Lake Dunlap.
Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority engineers believe an eroded and deteriorated hinge caused the May 14 Lake Dunlap Dam spill gate failure.
“(The hinge) is the area where the gate connects to the concrete of the dam itself. It’s meant to rotate so the spill gate can go up and down,” Charlie Hickman, executive manager of engineering at Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, said. “It’s what we believe failed on the gates at Dunlap. This pin is supposed to be fixed to the gate and rotate through, but over time that has failed and you can see where it’s wearing down.”
The pin that sits in the hinge is meant to be three inches thick. Over time, however, a good amount of it has deteriorated. Upon the recommendation of consulting engineers, GBRA officials believe it’s no longer safe to continue operating the gates because of the deterioration of the pin and hinge, Hickman said.
Divers who explored the waters of Lake Dunlap also found pieces of steel that had broken off the hinge.
While there is no way to inspect the hinges since they sit inside the gate, there is also no way of just taking one off and replacing it, Hickman said.
“This is designed based on all construction practices from the 1920s, several different pieces of steel that are riveted together,” Hickman said. “There’s no way just to take this off and bolt a new one on there. It wasn’t designed to do that. You’d have to take the whole gate apart to work on one and you’re basically doing a replacement.”
A water barrier is also needed to even accomplish any work on the gates, he said.
“Modern dams are built with the ability to drop a bolt head and make a dry area to work in, but our dams did not include them,” Hickman said. “So they weren’t designed to be maintained, so to speak.”
Many in the community were aghast while watching video footage of the aftermath of the Dunlap spill, video footage GBRA published on its Facebook page and website. The footage showed the obvious dangers associated with the aging dams, but some ignored those possible dangers, GBRA said in its Thursday news release.
“The hydroelectric dams that form the recreational lakes along the Guadalupe River have surpassed the end of their useful life at more than 90 years old. Over the past several years, GBRA has instituted a variety of safety measures — including adding signage and buoys, establishing and extending restricted zones around the dams and installing real-time monitoring cameras as well as sirens and public address systems — to warn people of the hazard,” the release read. “Despite these efforts, monitoring systems continue to capture people within the restricted areas close to — and in some instances on top of — the dams, intensifying public safety concerns.”
The draining of the lakes affects more than just Seguin residents and their neighbors. Many people from out of town take to the lakes during the hot summer months as well.
Austin residents Donna Kreuzer and her husband Paul Kreuzer, who was making their way around Meadow Lake in a canoe, said the draining of the lakes is a disgrace to the community.
“All of this area (Meadow Lake) is a flood zone,” Donna said. “Our friends came out here and have built a house 20 feet high to prevent flooding and even though they have experienced floods whenever they come, they still come back because this is what they enjoy and to just steal it away from them is waterway robbery.”
As a former Houston teacher, Paul said he has many memories of bringing his students to the Guadalupe to expose them to the great outdoors.
“This generation right now has always had it,” Paul said. “It’s always been here. You want to go sailing, you want to go canoeing, it’s here. And it’s going to be a shock to the next generation when it’s not.”
Les Shook, a Lake McQueeney resident of about three years, questioned why the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority neglected the dams for so long.
“Dams, like anything, aren’t built to last forever and that’s why you have to have a contingency plan, somebody’s got to be putting money back in,” he said.
Shook estimates the effects of draining Lake McQueeney to be catastrophic to the value of his home and the surrounding county. And he placed blame for those negative changes.
“We’re victims of maybe decades of mismanagement,” Shook said. “There is just something wrong here. The biggest problem is that if they drain this lake my house is going to decrease in value by 50%. There’s a lot of valuable property on this lake. On this house, we pay $12,000 a year to the (Seguin) Independent School District. If that is reduced from $12,000 to $6,000 a year. Who’s going to make up for the budget default?”
More than dollars and cents are at stake. Quality of life issues can possibly arise with GBRA’s plan.
On Thursday morning, a San Antonio man fishing at the Lake Placid Public Boat Ramp said he recognized the concern about safety was valid. But Jacob Hernandez wondered if there was some way to save the lakes and preserve a way of life that seems to be fleeting fast.
“It’s disappointing. You bring your kids out here to have a good time and enjoy spending time with the family,” Jacob said. “If they do this, then what are we going to have to do, where will we be able to go.
“For safety purposes, I guess you have to do what you have to do,” he continued. “But, at the same time, what’s the cost? It creates a ripple effect.”
Thursday was the first time Jacob, his father-in-law Robert Hernandez and Robert’s brother Alex, all of San Antonio, visited Lake Placid. Robert has traveled Interstate 10 many times in the last 15 years or so and he always passed a spot off the side of the highway that looked interesting. For years, he said he would come back to the pretty and serene spot, Robert said.
Their first trip there conceivably could be the last, he said.
Robert Coker spent part of Thursday morning helping his friend Jimmy Frederick try out Frederick’s new boat. Frederick lives in the Lockhart area and Coker is a Guadalupe County resident.
As they maneuvered the boat at the Lake Placid boat ramp, Coker said he knew of the issues GBRA faced and heard about the other two lakes that drained. When he learned of GBRA’s plan to dewater all the lakes, Coker thought of the homeowners who bought waterfront property and what they must be enduring.
“I can’t imagine what the people who live on those lakes must be going through,” Coker said. “My opinion is it doesn’t seem reasonable to drain the lakes before they even know where the funds are going to come from.”
GBRA has said funding for replacement of the dams could cost $180 million in total. The authority has said the dams do not produce electricity that can cover operating costs, not to mention tens of millions in maintenance.
GBRA officials have not identified a clear source of funding for necessary improvements.
“Ensuring the long-term sustainability of the dams is a community endeavor,” the authority said in its press release. “GBRA is working in partnership with the Guadalupe Valley Lakes lake associations and affected residents, as well as city and county officials, to determine the best course of action for identifying, funding and completing the necessary replacement of the dams.”
GBRA has known for decades that maintenance on the aging dams was subpar and the hydro-electric dams don’t generate sufficient income, McQueeney resident Wayne Harmon said after finishing up a kayaking trip Thursday with his son Garrett on Lake Placid. Why is the association only recently looking into funding sources, he queried.
While GBRA was the one responsible for putting off maintenance, he sees the rotting dams also as a community issue that needs to be addressed by the community, including business owners who make their living benefiting from the lakes, Harmon said. It shouldn’t be just property owners, government entities and GBRA footing the bill.
“All these businesses that benefit off these lakes, they should pitch in,” he said. “After all these years, you would think they’d have something as a backup plan.”
News spread during a Wednesday homeowners association meeting where she learned GBRA planned to drain the lakes, said LizAnn Schary-Orr, a McQueeney Homeowners Association board member and homeowner in McQueeney for three years.
“It really looks like it’s a go,” she said. “A lot of people think that ‘oh, it’s not really going to happen,’ but it’s going to happen and I think what the president of the homeowners association said last night was that we’re acting on the premise that it is going to happen.”
Schary-Orr is one of a few who are attempting to stay positive about the situation.
“Some people are discussing whether or not we can do donations to raise the money to fix the dam because this is their spot,” Schary-Orr said. “I think we are basically going to have to depend on some kind of private fund. But one really positive thing about it, too, is — and they do this at Lake Austin — where they drain it and clean it. Not that that is what’s happening to us but we could get out there and clean the lake. It’s shocking but I’m trying to stay positive.”